Why Fallout 76 Is A Terrible, Terrible Betrayal Of Its Past (And Also Okay)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 0.603% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So the reviews of Fallout 76 are in, and they’re confirming it’s the game I dreaded seeing: almost no story, no NPCs to interact with, just a big empty arena to grind levels by killing monsters, and tolerating playing with randos with names like “TurdFerguson.”

That’s not Fallout, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ve played Fallout since the first Fallout – and back then it was a dialogue-heavy, character-driven RPG that was astonishing because it rewarded flexibility. I put all my points into a Charisma-based scientist smooth-talker, and in fact at the end of the game I didn’t need to fight the final boss – I used my expertise to pluck apart his grandiose arguments for world domination and left him behind to self-destruct.

To me, Fallout is about the dialogue trees and strong storylines, backed by a marginal combat system that is alternately too punishing or too trivial once you get the right gear. That’s literally what it’s been since the mid-90s.

And now all that’s been stripped away, harvested to create a game that’s basically got zero storylines, no crafted missions, just doofing around with PVP and random encounters in a game that could be, well, any other game.

Yet that game is not necessarily a bad game.

It is merely a game that no longer appeals to me.

And I wish more people understood that goddamned distinction.

It’s what I consider to be The Batman problem. Everyone loves Batman, right? And when I went to see The Dark Knight in the movie theater, I came out pumped because that was Batman, that was the killer interpretation I’d been waiting for.

But my friend Dana was disappointed. Why? Well, she’d grown up on the 1970s comics, where Batman was not some jumped-up thug but in fact the World’s Greatest Detective, a man who valued brain over brawn…

And while The Dark Knight was a perfectly good movie for what it set out to do, it wasn’t her Batman.

At which point I realized that someone saying “I love Batman” means almost nothing. It certainly doesn’t tell us what Batman means to them. They could love the doofy cheerfulness of the Adam West 1960s Batman, or the bone-crunching take-no-prisoners 1980s Frank Miller Batman, or love the Batgadgets, or really enjoys the Batman rogue gallery of colorful criminals.

When you say “I love Batman,” you don’t. You love a specific Batman. And if the franchise continues long enough, you’ll find Batmen that you don’t love.

Because the reason Batman is a global sensation is precisely because Batman is a concept wide enough to stuff a thousand interpretations into. Whenever someone reads a Batman comic, each fan is enjoying a particular aspect of that comic – the way Batman fights, the art style, the Bruce Wayne playboy fantasy, the idea of Batman as a self-made hero…

No two people are seeing the same Batman.

And what’ll often happen when a new interpretation of the Bat hits the screen is that fans will claim “it sucks.” But what is actually happening, even though they don’t have a critic’s understanding to piece that logic out, is that this Batman isn’t ticking all the boxes that, for them, defines their Batman.

It doesn’t suck. From a critic’s viewpoint, “suck” would be ‘It failed to do what it set out to do.” Whereas what’s actually happening is, “It’s doing what it wants to do, and very effectively, but it’s not what you wanted them to do.”

Like The Dark Knight. It’s still a great movie from many perspectives. But if you’re judging it by the “Is Batman smarter than Sherlock Holmes?”, well, then, no.

Likewise, Fallout 76 is the final step in a looooong series of subtle retoolings to the Fallout series that have, quietly, removed all the portions that I considered to be essential for a Fallout game. The RPG story-based mechanics were what defined a Fallout for me, and they’ve been reduced to almost a vestigial portion of the game. Now it’s gone.

So for me? Not a Fallout game.

But for many thousands of people over the last decade, “Fallout” could equally well be “Traipsing through an incredibly detailed wilderness, picking off monsters and leveling up.” And that’s not an invalid interpretation. If that’s what makes them happy, then that’s good.

This bullshit that “Every piece of media must be specifically designed to make me happy” is toxic, man. It’s okay that there’s stories not aimed in my direction. There can be beefy manpain gunfight movies and weepy LGBTQ romances, neither of which appeal to me much.

That’s good. The world is larger than me. Acknowledging that is a major step in becoming a functionally compassionate human being.

And it’s not wrong for me to mourn the loss of a franchise I loved. If Fallout 76 is successful, then what defines a Fallout game for the average person will be permanently rearranged, and I’ll never get to play the game the way I wanted ever again. (Which is why secretly, I’m hoping that Fallout 76 is a crap game in the sense that “It fails to appeal to the people it’s designed to appeal to,” and they have to start appealing to schmucks like me.)

But it is wrong for me to get furious because Bethesda screwed it up. Part of being a grownup is understanding that franchises evolve, take chances, and part of those chances involve potentially veering away from the things you love. That’s not a betrayal of you personally; that’s any art, honestly exploring itself in that eternal dance between “aesthetic goals” and “gotta pay the bills.”

Why is that distinction important?  Because in this day and age of Internet-fuelled fanboys, you can steamroll that outrage into a poisonous mass of hatred, and come to believe that the reason your show got cancelled or your movie didn’t pan out the way you wanted is because people were actively out to sabotage what you like.  And they’re not.  As someone who knows a hell of a lot of creators of videogames and RPGs and books and music and movies, they’re all doing their damndest to try to make a good product, and they feel sick when they fail to deliver.

So if your favorite series isn’t topping the charts or your beloved series hangs a sharp turn to nowhere, that’s not anyone working to suppress you.  You have to understand that, well, some of the things that are dearest and best to you don’t resonate with other people.  Which is a painful lesson to learn, but that makes it no less true.

Is Fallout 76 good? Based on the reviews, I can honestly say it’s lacking everything that draws me to a Fallout game. Does that mean it sucks?

If I’m being intellectually honest – which I should be – then I’ll say that it automatically sucks for me.

Let’s see whether it sucks at providing what other people define as “The Fallout Experience.”

6 Comments

  1. Jeremiah Fargo
    Oct 25, 2018

    I’m probably still going to play it. I’m disappointed that it’s not the game I’m looking for from FallOut – not even close – but I’m curious to see what they’ve done and how/if they’ve furthered the lore somehow, without NPCs.

    What I’m not going to do is buy the game on drop day or anything close to that. I’m not going to pay full price. Unless I hear something major from new players, this isn’t going to be a full-priced purchase. Maybe when it hits $20 off.

    • The Ferrett
      Oct 25, 2018

      Maybe. I’m not ruling it out, particularly after a year’s worth of patches transformed NO MAN’S SKY into something that is reported to be playable – but the core game loop of “Shoot, then shoot some more” has been a dead flop for me consistently, so unless they add a lot then even at that price it’s not worth it.

  2. dellstories
    Oct 26, 2018

    Yeah, but sometimes Batman actually sucks (Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher, 1997)

    • Yet Another Laura H.
      Oct 30, 2018

      Um. I finally saw B & R early this year, and I liked it. You could just see that the actors (with the exception of Arnold, and having read up on his costume, who can blame him?) were having a ridiculous amounts of fun. If I’d been heavily emotionally invested in My Batman, the fallen (Googles “male caryatid”) with his stone doing his futile best to stem the relentless tide of insanity and corruption maybe I wouldn’t have? (And yes, What They Did to Bane and other characters made me bristle a bit, and the set design did make my head ache— but spoke volumes as to how much the frenzy of neon can be just as dark as… well, never mind..)

      And sure, maybe My Kink Is Not Your Kink and My Kink Is Not Okay, but… to one person, it didn’t suck. Shrugs. If nothing else, you may feel superior to me, a horrible person.

  3. Mark Dijkstra
    Oct 27, 2018

    Oh man, Fallout! What really got me about the first one was the total freedom to do what you want. Wanna kill that NPC in Junktown that’s pivotal to the story? Fully up to you, as long as you don’t mind fighting off the entire town and finding the route to the next town yourself. I’ve loved Fallout 1&2, and really liked Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Fallout 4 fell flat for me, didn’t even finish it. Was wondering if you ever wrote some thoughts on Fallout 4 that maybe I missed? Would be great to have your perspective!

    • The Ferrett
      Oct 30, 2018

      I thought I did, and apparently I planned to, but I can’t find a record of it. I finished Fallout 4 because the game loop was good – I have like 75 hours in the damn thing – but it was already skating the edges of my narrative boredom.

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